Left and Right

4 Tamerica-under-communismToo often in political debate – mea culpa, mea culpa –  the idea is to score emotive points against the other side. The easiest way to to this is to attract the flaws in the rhetoric of the other side. What I mean is that political scrapes target the bluster and emotional appeals of the other side as naturally the weakest point in their argument. Both sides score points by using ad hominem (attacking the man, and not the program or the events; the example here is Clinton and Monica) and straw man arguments (over characterize your opponent’s view, then attack the characterization (minimum wage is communism).

But if we allow our selves to dwell in the strange and quite separate universe of theory and analyze some of the basic assumptions and ideas behind the Left and Right, we might come to a much better understand of ourselves, our opponents, and how to actually make things better.

The basic assumption is about human nature. I think that in today’s world we would recognize it most succinctly in the nature vs. nurture debate. Are our actions and personalities shaped by our circumstances, or simply by our genetic material? Conservative thought assumes an essential unchanging humanity, while those on the Left see the social determinacy of human behavior, and seek to mold not just a better society, but a better humanity. What I would point out is that neither side is interested in any aspect of the other in any practical way.

The strength of conservative thought is that by assuming a fixed human being, it sets self up appeal to our experience of the world with each other. It therefore anticipates the disasters of Revolutions, untried economics, and resents the arrogance of the Left. It’s skeptical, and practical, and fits well into our daily lives and experiences. Political and social stability reflects the stability of the human personality.

Leftist thought thinks that the change is too easy. It looks forward to a utopia that seems right around the corner. It’s strength is that by seeking change, it allies itself with the essential truth of living on planet Earth: things change. Leftists see a series of systems that all function together, and so to fix one problem, one must fix all problems, or to fix the system, one fixes all problems. This “totality” gets it into trouble.

I agree that the human personalty is essentially fixed. By this I mean that no matter how perfect our social, economic and political regime is, we will always be inconsistent, changeable, selfish, jealous, angry, unsatisfied, mean, etc. Any political system will have to take into account that on Tuesday, most people will want their entire world to be in order and quite, and then on Friday night, will want to go out and party and put indiscreet photos on Facebook. The Left needs to realize that on a psychological, emotional level, we will always be us; the Right needs to allow real change and acknowledge that your education level, your job, the basic circumstances of your upbringing and life will irrevocably mold your outlook and thoughts and opinions.

But on the other hand, our behavior is incredibly socially determined. First of all, as Aristotle observed, we are social animals. But I do not think we realize how submerged we are in social relations. We are social in the same way that whales are aquatic. We just can’t survive without each other. This is true economically (its just not an option to go out and live in the wilderness) and psychologically. Look no further than high schools cliques. With society (each other; our friends), and  in conjunction with our emotions, is our we make our decisions and choose to lead our lives.

Context is everything. 

Edmund Burke, at the start of the French Revolution despairs of the actions of the Revolutionaries. He argues for the essential justice and wisdom of the French Monarchy (he’s actually interested in preserving the English Monarchy), and he sees this as linked into a deep social/cultural past. The writings of Voltaire and the sermons of Dr. Price are inexplicable to him. We need to recognize that things change. Behind the immediate political and social reality, behind the reality of our emotions there is a world of massive complex economics.

Behind the drama of the Storming of the Bastille, the Terror, etc, there is the start of the Industrial Revolution, the advancement of technology, the growth of cities, mathematics, global trade, etc. The world is changing, human society slowly changes, and our political upheavals represent manifestations of this change being held back.

In the posters at the top of the article each side has characterized the other, in what I think is a rather revealing way. The poster on the left, created by the Republican Spanish Government during the Spanish Civil War, characterizes the Fascist/Nationalist Forces as the army, Catholic Church, and Nazi powers that be on a ship manned by Moroccan soldiers and sailors.

On the Right, a poster depicting the worst fears about Communism. Strange militaristic ethnic minorities rape and pillage the American heartland.

Hopefully, we can move on from these stereotypes.

Edmund Burke and the Roots of Conservative Thought

800px-Smelling_out_a_ratWhen exactly modernity happened, or when the modern era can best be understood to have begun is a matter of some contention. The date of the Storming of the Bastille is as good as any. The French revolution serves as such a useful landmark because it was so traumatizing to the European mind; it is also the event to which we can trace most of contemporary political discourse.

Edmund Burke was a protestant Irishman who made a career for himself as a politician, orator, and rhtorician. His main patron was Lord Rockingham, one of the great Whigs. He also dabbled in philosophy, though my impression is that his philosophy is studied more as a historical document than as a philosophic system. Burke is a unique figure because he is trapped between the world of restless, Catholic, Jacobin Ireland, and his loyalty to his great conservative patrons.

Burke is best know for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which appeared in the early stages of the Revolution, before the Terror. The context is that the French Revolution seems to catch everyone in England by surprise, and nobody knows what to think about it, much less respond in anyway. The English prided themselves on their liberal, quasi-democratic system, well on its way to the parliamentary constitutional monarchy we know today. France was a long time traditional enemy as well (this is right after the French has helped the American colonies gain their independence), so large sections of the English population would have been favorably disposed to news of the French Revolution.

But Burke sees the danger. And he must not only reveal the truth of the Revolution, he must stir up support against the Revolution. And he uses the incident of the sermon of Dr. Price (of the cartoon above) to write a book against the Revolution. The result is a classic of political philosophy which has had enduring significance. During the propaganda struggle of the Cold War, ‘France’ was replaced with ‘Russia’, quite literally, and Burke was deployed in the Russian Revolution was well.

Burke is at his best when he discusses the Revolution itself in terms of human nature. This allows Burke to foresee the Terror and even has some sentences that foreshadow Napoleon. Burke clearly had a intuitive grasp of the weaknesses and flaws in human nature, and clearly diagnoses what has and will go wrong.

“When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of Fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor, and the honor of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subject are rebels from principle.” 

This passage shows not only Burke’s insight into government, but also shows his knack for one-liners that stick, like the last sentence. In this sense, there is very little to be found in the book that one would disagree with out right. One sees the ills and dangers of Revolution laid bare in ways that, if they seem common now, are only so because Burke saw them so clearly and set them forth so well in this book.

It’s important to remember that Burke is writing not so much to convince but to reassure a strata of Englishmen, and energize to action the people that would already be suspicious of the Revolution to begin with. This shows in the structure and caliber of the argument, which one nods one head along too, but remains unconvinced. The book starts out posing as a “letter intended to be sent to a Frenchman” but at several hundred pages long, fools no one. But Burke has a good reason for the charade because he is not laying out a formal intellectual argument.

This is a work of rhetoric, not directly of political philosophy. This allows Burke to adopt the tone of a matter-of-fact Englishman in one passage, and soar away to lofty flourishes which tug on heartstrings on the next. The best example of this is when he talks about the French queen, Marie Antoinette, and waxes poetic on her position after being captured and paraded by the Parisian mob.

“…surely never light on this orb, which she hardly seems to touch, a more delightful vision…glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy….little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. – But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom.” 

This is the woman who is attributed the phrase “Let them eat cake.” Obviously, this never historically happened, but I feel that the phrase is probably closer to historical reality than the image Burke presents of her as the perfect Queen, described as both a Roman matroness, loaded with dignity and feminine perfection.

Ultimately, Burke doges the big questions of the Revolution. In deprecating Dr. Price’s sermon, he destroys the letter quite well, but carefully doges the spirit of the sermon. He uses technical and historical inaccuracies  to avoid awkward questions that dig deeper then  he’s prepared to go. It’s not that he says anything wrong exactly, or anything I would disagree with, it is exactly what he does not say, what he does not ask.

Burke has no inkling that revolutions, far from being prompted by pure theory (as he would have us believe), are completely grounded in economics and social reality.  People don’t read books and then go storm the Bastille. In other words, Burke does not allow that the French Revolution may owe more to genuine human misery than the wicked writings of Voltaire and Dr. Price. He presents the operation of the French monarchy as wise, glorious, and prosperous and is perplexed by why the French might choose to do away with the French Monarchy. I got the sense that for Burke, much less than saying starvation is a good price to pay for la glorie and Marie Antoinette, pretends that nothing at all is wrong with the French monarchy.

This is where he is weakest. Despite his grasp of human nature with all its dangers and weaknesses and foibles,  he likes to present the French Revolution as the poor decision of new managerial staff, mislead by myopic, dusty theorists. To be clear, Burke is concerned with showing the dangers of the Revolution, and inspiring English resistance at home and abroad to the movement, and by and large I agree with him.

But his writing’s second life as a foundational text of conservative thought, especially in the Cold War context, can bare some criticism. Conservative thought has always been oblivious to its own consequences. If Revolutions are violent political and social change that happen in a short time, then they must only occur when normal or reasonable change has been suppressed. Revolution does not happen without a repressive, conservative regime in place that allows nothing to change and refuses to do anything to alleviate human suffering. The worse the repression, the worse the revolution, generally. How much mismanagement and incompetence does Burke expect the French people to put up with?

His arguments are essentially emotional, and they appeal to the heart, but do not sway the head. Burke is of course known for his statement about “change as the true guarantor of conservation” (or something to that effect) but the historical record shows that conservative leaders, be they political, economic or social, are largely incapable of effecting gradual change to the benefit of the public at large. It is one thing to urge slow and rational change, and in that sense be against Revolutions (with this I agree completely) but you have to painfully aware of how this rational is far to often perforated into the “big No” that lays at bottom of conservatism.

Discourse, Narrative, and the Breakdown of rational argument

Browsing my Facebook news feed, I saw this article, form “bizpacreview.com” and an organization with the terrifyingly loaded (as if there is someone to be found anywhere who is against prosperity), and highly ironic (the trickle down economics they support just hasn’t worked), name of “Americans for Prosperity.”

Here’s the article:

Watch Bill Gates school MSNBC’s Mika on minimum wage; she didn’t like his non-liberal answer

January 22, 2014 by Michele Kirk 71 Comments

Like most MSNBC personalities, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski feels no need to be subtle when pushing her liberal thoughts on the public. It works out well since the public can’t talk back to her.

Brzezinski found out Tuesday what happens when you have a business-savvy billionaire on as a guest and you ask him about raising the minimum wage.

Not everyone’s drinking the Kool-Aid on the $15 hamburger. And Bill Gates can obviously do the math on this issue.

Brzezinski did her best to load the question in favor of a typical liberal response:

“What do you think about the minimum wage? Should it be raised? And should we want to see models more like Costco – where companies pay their employees a lot more than the minimum wage?”

Microsoft’s co-founder wasn’t biting on that apple.

“Well, jobs are a great thing. You have to be a bit careful that if you raise the minimum wage, you’re encouraging labor substitution. You’re going to go buying machines and automate things — or cause jobs to appear outside of that jurisdiction. And so within certain limits, you know, it does cause job destruction. But, if you really start pushing it, then you’re just making a huge trade-off.”

After shutting down Brzezinski’s feeble attempt at arguing with him, Gates mercifully wiped the confused look off her face by saying, “these are complex issues. It’s not as simple as saying ‘OK just raise the wage’ and all of a sudden . . .”

Nice try, Mika. I hope you were paying attention. Watch out for those “complex issues.

First I want to discuss the caliber of the argument of the writer, then I want to discuss the actual subject of minimum wage.

Something that always strikes me about argument is that there are so many levels to be found in it. Theory, practice, and pure emotional rhetoric. The simple truth is that if you want to convince the public, one has to quickly catch emotions. We could argue economic theory over the minimum wage for literally the rest of our lives, but of course, doing your homework about economic theory never won anyone an election, much less an online opinion poll.

We as a public need to recognize the above article as pure propaganda, pure rhetoric. The simple fact that its loaded with emotive language renders valueless any content of fact that there may be in the article. Telling a story; repeating a political narrative is what politics has become. There are several narratives here that conservatives use over and over again. 1) liberal media conspiracy, and 2) down-to-earth businessman setting record strait.

Briefly, there is no liberal media. If you really were a hard-nosed, down-to-earth businessman, you would immediacy recognize that media is lowest-common denominator, and literally only tries grab the emotions of the most number of people. The media are largely owned by huge corporate structures that expect 20% profit and have no interest in the news requirements of a democratic society. Liberals themselves very frequently have disagreements with what is in the news. Further, the media is so sensitive to claims about bias that they have completely given up any sort of actual journalism, and merely report the he-said, she-said of politics. The result is our Republican Congress and the shut-downs.

The host’s question about minimum wage is hardly liberal at all; its a decent question, and it worries me that we are at appoint in our society where such questions are seen as corrosively liberal. It’s a weakness in conservative thought and opinion that any suggestion of change is treated as bad. One gets the sense that any raise in the minimum wage amounts to hard-core Stalinism.  Conservatives would make their beliefs palatable, and their arguments rational by a modicum of compromise, a willingness to work through a problem, instead of the big “No” of contemporary Republicans.

As widely successful as Bill Gates may be, he never the less repeats canned economic arguments against minimum wage. It’s not really the John Wayne moment of setting the record strait that the above article makes it out to be. It’s not even an argument. No way a talk show host has any interest or incentive for engaging in economic debates on TV.

Briefly, what about minimum wage? Are we convinced by Gates’ platitude about labour substitution and mechanization? Really, there is a clash of vision here, ultimately about what we want from the economy. I don’t deny that in the conservative/Gates graph of labor supply and demand that we learned in high school does indeed indicate that demand for labor will go down. And that’s bad. I think that is a very one-step argument. It’s not wrong, its just limited and simplistic. And I am suspicious of arguments that are simple.

The flip side is that over 30 million Americans work for minimum wage. This means that minimum wage is no longer for high schoolers worked over the summer. The average of a McDonald employee is something like 28 years old. If you think the minimum wage is high enough, you simply have not experienced life on minimum wage. Trickle down economic’s basic claim is that the wealthy and the large corporations generate the wealth, that eventually trickle down to the rest of us. This thinking has been in ascendency for over thirty years, and we have nothing to show for it but massively increasing inequality, unemployment, and a financial system that seems to be as good as laying people off as any minimum wage hike could possibly be. I don’t deny that trickle down economics is a factor in the economy. But why is everyone else  excluded? Isn’t a healthy economy the one where everyone has purchasing power? Should not every economic class be generating wealth? Should not we value the lives of real people over McDonald’s profit margin? I will close by recommending that people do not go to television for their economic understand. I personally recommend a book on steady state economics.

 

 

 

Tony Judt and Thinking the Twentieth Century

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I recently attended a conference at the University of Sussex on the famous historian Tony Judt’s last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, completed literally on his deathbed.

The American historian, Synder, held a series of engaging conversations with Judt. These conversations were later turned into this book. Synder is an expert on Eastern European history.

Judt was born right after WWII. And in many ways, his academic experience, in fact, the experience of his life are instructive. We has worn many hats. He was a French historian for a time, an eastern European historian, and English historian, and lived and worked for a large portion of his life in the US. In the course of his life, he worked on a kibbutz in Israel, before growing disenchanted. So in many ways, he has personally played a small role in some of the major movements in the mid-later 20th century.

What I find most interesting is his experience as an academic and intellectual, and the journey of his personal beliefs in many ways reflect and illustrate the intellectual swings and travails of his entire generation. He provides an admirable launch pad for discussing the intellectual history of the mid/late 20th century.

Intellectuals living in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, had many things to explain, to themselves and for themselves, and for society at large. They had to explain Fascism as an intellectual project, and they had to explain how it was able to grow out of, and subvert democratic, liberal society. They had to get their minds around the Holocaust; how the ideas behind it developed; how civilization was capable of such things and what it meant. If this wasn’t enough they have the problem of the Left, Marxism, and communism. If these three things are the same in your mind, then best untangle the three straight away because the relationship is anything but simple. Specifically, western intellectuals have to separate themselves from the Russian communist experiment and Stalinism in general. They have to work out their own loyalties, and they have to explain how communism could turn into Stalinism.

These problem of the Left is more interesting then the problem of Fascism and the Holocaust, simply because dealing with Marxism and communism challenge them and force them to apply the critical, analytical microscope to themselves, probably much more than they would like.

Marxism is both a political program, a scholarly approach and technique, as well as emotional/psychological program often described as a ‘secular religion.’ The peak of communism as a secular religion was probably 1870-1930, very roughly. It’s a generation, really , that’s political, emotional, and sociological problems seem to be largely solved, or at least, very convincingly explained. Marxism as a scholarly approach (still common and in use today) is based on the idea of materialism (physical things count; not mental or theoretical things). So Marxism isn’t simply economics; its an approach that assumes that the mode of production, how people live and make money counts for everything. Everything else (furniture styling, music styles, fashion, literature; these things are called the ‘superstructure’) follows from economic modes of production. This is an incredibly powerful way of seeing the world, as it explains very many things. Not that there are not weaknesses, but when Marx and Engels developed it in the mid 19th century, it was new and persuasive.

Judt was raised working class, in a family that ‘believed’ you could say. Thus like all intellectuals, he was a Marxist. Increasingly, these academics have to decide to what extent they are literally loyal to the Soviet Union and “communism.” As you might expect, most drift away from youthful communist belief, some stay true believers, and some stay Marxist, but disown and disavow the Stalinism.

Those that choose to remain Marxist but disavow Stalinism are challenged by 1968 events, the riots and repressions in Czechslovakia, and the Paris student riots and strikes, where the theory circulated that students were to foretold revolutionary vanguard class. It’s interesting that this was actually taken seriously at the time.

These intellectuals come to the ultimate problem that seems to link all of the problems that I’ve mentioned together. They have to explain mass society and its political consequences. They know that so far its been a disaster. So what happens? Do you believe in good ole’ liberal democracy, dispute its obvious weaknesses and failures? Is Marxism the true path to the future? And what is Fascism? They have trouble deciding if liberal democracy will always eventually lead to Fascism, or if Fascism and Communism are the same thing.

These questions are very much unanswered. Judt, near the end of his life, came to the conclusion that social democracy (what we would call the post-war european welfare state) was probably the best form of government. For a man starting life as a Marxist, its a surprisingly conservative conclusion.

Something that I think this older generation of academics are vulnerable too is a charge of nostalgia, of indulging fond memories of their childhood. If I’m honest, I think that the welfare state has more to recommend itself then we are willing to give it credit for. After the mid-70s oil crisis, followed by Reagan/Thatcher, welfare states have been increasingly dismantled, and social inequality is distinctly on the rise. These academics grew up in a time less plutocratic than ours, and I think they righty look back with a sense of loss.

But on a personal note, I think they have done a poor job on arming us with arguments against the Reagan/Thatcher movement. They have been inarticulate about the advantages of the welfare states; of what has been lost.

In this time of apathy, one searches for a new brand of academic or intellectual Leftist thinking to lead us back from the curious right of neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative politics. Is it steady state economics? The big question, can liberal democracy survive in mass society, is still very much unanswered.

Theodora Mosaic, Ravenna

Theodora Mosaic, Ravenna

The most commonly remarked upon subtext in this mosaic is the richness of the Theodora’s portrayal compared to that of Justinian. Note, not only the increased richness in detail of her dress and her environment (the fountain, her entering the Basilica, but even the folds of her dress (showing the three kings from the Basilica Apollonaire Nuovo), are different.

The disposition of Theodora is majestic, bordering on supernatural, while Justinian looks mean and rough in comparison.

Justinian Mosaic At St. Vitale’s in Ravenna

Justinian Mosaic At St. Vitale's in Ravenna

This mosaic has a complex historical context, with many laters of meaning and interpretation possible. I think its fair to say that it is not the most artistic or imaginative of the Byzantine mosaics, but it does convey one of the more interesting messages.

Showing the Emperor Justinian and his entourage, leading and joined by the pillars of the State, the Church (on the right), and the Army (on the left) attending personally to the high altar at Ravenna’s new major church, San Vitale’s.

Justinian represents the bridge between the ancient Roman Empire and what we now call the Byzantine Empire. He can be considered “the last of the Romans” but he can be called “the first of the Byzantines.” Given the cultural importance of his reign, I tend to hold more with later view. But of course, the Byzantines would have been insulted to not be considered the rightful continuation of the Roman Empire, and strove for centuries to reestablish the Roman Empire in its full, Mediterranean-wide glory. Ravenna, a capital in the late Roman Empire was at the period the principal political city in Italy during the late ancient and early medieval worlds.

Justinian was able to deploy the greatest general of the age, Belisarius, who just manages to reconquer Italy from the Ostrogoths. Frankly, reestablishment of the Empire was largely beyond the resources and organizational abilities of Justinian’s state, so the Byzantine rule in Italy was constantly under threat, and needed constant reinforcement. It became an “exarchate”  a sort of military province based at Ravenna.

The mosaic then, represents an attempt at a imperial return. Its a statement of reestablishment. The actual faces in the portraits, probably correspond to actual people. The figure just to our left of Justinian is thought to be Belisarius, and the figure on our right of Justinian is Maximilian, Bishop of Ravenna, a key and energetic figure in the Exarchate.

 

Venice must be a kind of Urban Planning hell…

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Venice has three major problems. The first is the basic logistical problems of transportation, trash collection, living space, etc; the daily basics of life in a city, which must be tremendously complicated by the water based nature of transportation. There is a causeway that can sustain limited road and rail traffic, but that is about it. Everything must come in by boat. The water bus system and the water-borne garbage collection system seem to work, but I wonder how far these systems can go in bad weather, or logistical stress. At every step of this problem there is the overwhelming fact that every inch of Venice is essentially a historical landmark. This means in a practical sense that new pathways, structures, infrastructure, is not really an option.

Then there is the problem of the actual sinking of parts of Venice. I don’t know any of the science behind it, but it seems a unique problem. This is different than mere flooding, its a combination of rising global water levels, but the actual physical land supporting the city is apparently giving way under the weight. Ok, maybe not the entire city, but certain sections, absolutely.

Then there is the demographic, economic problem. Venice, the islands of Venice are little more than a weird tourist trap. My understanding is that the number of Italians who live in Venice declines ever so slightly every year. At one point, the mayor Venice proposed an entrance tax for tourists. The problem for Venice is: how does it maintain a healthy level of tourism, while attempting to maintain and maybe even grow Venice as an actual, functioning, Italian city.

I do feel like the easy ‘out’ would be to turn Venice into a kind of urban ‘national park.’ A handful of residents that lived their year around for maintenance, and then bused in kids on their summer college breaks to work at restaurants and man gift-shops. Give up on Venice as a live city.

I don’t think I agree with that though. That would make it a very weird place, ultimately. Part of the charm of a place is its liveliness. How do you get Italians to move to Venice and work outside of the tourist trade? That of course is the hard part. The mainland shore is lined by some heavy industry, but most of the people that work at the heavy industry probably don’t live on the Rialto.  There is a tension between the expense and inherent logistical problems of Venice with it being able to attract new forms of enterprise. For example, with the age of the internet, the idea of working at home becomes far more viable, but again, there isn’t an easy solution.

A Perspective on the Middle East

I continue to be interested in the more subtle forms and expressions of history.  We are all familiar with formal or what we might call ‘high’ history. These are the documented events, like the “Camp David Accords” or the “Yom Kippur War” which get talked about and referred too a lot, often, of course, with good reason. But as often as not, formal historical events fail to capture the historical reality. Something like the Camp David Accords is a highly unique confluence of events, chance, and personalities. In the euphoria of the time, it might have seemed like the start of unraveling the problems in the Middle East. Of course, we see now how the Accords are just another episode in a larger, deteriorating situation.

In contrast to high history, I do not wish to push something called low history. I want to emphasize informal, or maybe ‘atmosphere’ history. This is cultural, intellectual, emotional/psychological and economic history.

You can think of it as social context. There are the fault lines in every society that based on various circumstances can either almost entirely disappear, or grow into major physical conflicts. These can be ethnic, religious, class/economic, value sets, etc. As human beings, we very largely interpret the world and its chaotic events in terms of narrative. Things have to fit in a story for us to emotionally engage with them. The result of this is that every society has a “palette” of narratives to explain events. The simplest example of this is to think of a time when you have felt that you have seen a stereotype confirmed or the odd, static-y feeling you get when a stereotype is dramatically not confirmed. Every society has a huge number of these narratives. Here are some other examples: “the liberal media” or “the disappearing middle class.”   These are more then just stereotypes. They tend to be more sub-conscious.

In the ongoing, and now increasingly global problems in the Middle East it is possible to see many good examples of this ‘atmosphere’ sense of history at work. When people talk and think and ‘do’ about or in the Middle East and the various deeply interconnected problems that I will refer to as “the Problem”, I have observed that everyone seems to creep towards either a sort of hyper cynical paranoia, or a dream-like naiveté, to everyone’s mutual detreiment.

For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, it lunched some SCUD missiles at Israel. When Irsrael didn’t retaliate, many Arab people that victory over Israel was nigh. Arafat came out in support of Saddam, maybe not necessarily as a result of this belief, but the two things are related how-ever distantly, and however hard it may be to establish that link. That’s an example of naiveté. Another are Zionists, what ever the stripe or origin who think that Israel’s security can somehow be ultimately achieved somehow – via a Manignot Line, apparently, in the face of an civilization outraged at its existence. That’s another example. The last is people who think that one side or the other are actually the “good guys.”

The other side is the cynical paranoia side, which manifests itself in pervasive conspiracy theories, corruption, oil economics and politics. This tends to represent the elites a little bit more. The filthy rich oil Arabs who don’t invest in their own people and country and send their money abroad, placating the population by financially supporting extremist religious organizations. (Its not a coincidence that the majority of 9/11 bombers were Saudis.

Plenty of blame to go around. Something you never really think about is how something like simple emotional assumptions lead to major, formal history events. This might seem obvious, but the context of events can never really be underestimated. Just because its complicated or hard to establish, does not negate its relevance or explanatory power.